2018, HD video, stereo sound, 12 minutes
Based on the principle of machine learning, the neuro-detective video explores the brutal assassination of the ecumenic Russian Orthodox priest, scholar and theologian Alexander Vladimirovich Men, aka Father Men, a controversial figure in Russia during the second half of the 20th century.
Vladimir Nadein: What is the story of Alexander Men, depicted in The Death of Father Men?
Mikhail Maksimov: Alexander Vladimirovich Men was a big advocate for Orthodoxy in Russia. And he was a highly esteemed intellectual during the late 1980s and early 90s. That was a high time of freedom of speech. Father Men was an honest advocate, he was open to everything. Because of this the Damocles sword was hanging over him all the time. He was criticized by all parties, including secret services…
VN: So they should have been thankful that you did all this investigation?
MM: I didn’t investigate anything. The point is that the media art concept allows you to do things without really getting into them, rooting them: on the contrary one could just be gliding through the medium, just like a surfer is riding waves. Cinematography is a perfect wave for an artist to ride.
VN: But you’ve let the neuro-network surf for you here. I want more details on how conspiratorial it was or what kind of data it was… How did you train the algorithm?
ММ: Of course, mentioning neuro-networks is quite a speculative of me. Well… Neuronet algorithms of today have a huge flaw: they all provide results that were expected from them. The person who trains it, who feeds data to it, becomes its implicit creator. So, the answer a neuronet gives you is mainly that of the person who trained it: their personal conclusions. After each training stage, there are corrections to be done to the sample set, initial data or some homogenous data. There need to be corrections for the neuronet to be able to continue training further and to give an output in the end. So, every training is followed by the corrections done by a programmer who trains the net. Therefore, the programmer’s will is confined in that of the net. I didn’t grow this net for myself… It’s not a trick. Who cares which framework did it use, GUN framework or mine? That was a more suiting option at the time. Moreover, as a result, I didn’t have this fitting issue, because everything was done on the first try, so there was no way to manipulate the outcome according to my will.
VN: What did you get rid off? What would you have kept? Nevertheless, there was this investigation…
MM: The case was studied. There was an attempt to find out, by means of visual art, who did actually… what was the point of killing Father Men? He was pressured by many forces who were equally capable of murder. So I did a set of test simulations… of Father Men in various states. There is Men right before the murder, also the Men who entered this… well… let’s say the bodiless state. When he grows wings and walks through this train that carries the Internet. The data was carried from one point to another in this train, physically: a content delivery network. He appears as a train singer, a musician like those playing in the commuter trains… He plays the accordion with his wings already being bodiless, he plays it with this hard drive, an SDN server. So, the thing that got out… An empty railway platform appears at the end of the film, and we hear the final musical piece by Evgeniy Voronovskiy (aka Cisfinitum), an anime girl should have danced there totally drunk like a station hobo.
VN: The reason to film The Death of Father Men was actually the death and the railroad itself, which are obviously very important for you and your works, like the Replace Me video game or the Measuring Carriage Measuring a Russia performance.
MM: I believe that every one of us is trying to extract big chunks of what is interesting for them… My visit to Father Men’s murder place (Semkhos railway station) was purely coincidental. There is Father Men’s memorial site, there are three monuments of him. Father Men was both Jewish and an Orthodox priest, so he was a convert. That’s why there are a menorah monument, an Orthodox cross and a church that was built after his death. There is a Museum of Road as well. All of it at the one and the same station, in forsaken and ill-kept place. It bloomed thanks to his death only. Just a simple space with different types of roads, boards, stones and asphalt. This is the Museum of Road. One can walk down this road. It’s a flat art piece… Father Alexander Men was killed in 1990 and the case was closed in 2000.. Everything that happened afterwards… His seed fell in the soil of Perestroika and bloomed profusely…
VN: Let’s get back to railway and death… There is a railway, which is kind of continuous movement, plus there is a cemetery, which comes up in a lot of your works, so the graveyard is kind of a start of a different journey? Are both existing in parallel or do they intersect?
MM: That’s actually not that clear, railroad and death are two coexisting realities. In literature when the railroad appears, it almost always means that the character will be touched by death. Funny enough, at Illusion Cinema they held a retrospective show of Vadim Abdarashitov’s films. In almost every film he had railroad as a reference for death or for a transgression to another state. So, the railroad is a kind of an old-fashioned mean of teleportation…
VN: The further way [after death] doesn’t interest you, right?
MM: I’m interested in preservation. I want to preserve those dead men. We are in charge of them. It’d be nice to preserve them and to restore them. It’s an important goal. Immortality isn’t here yet. So, it sounds kind of reasonable. I strive to draw this credibility criteria’s line further away so that it would become more and more abstract… In cinematography literalism and proportion should go hand-in-hand. Let’s say there are troops marching in a high budget film, and everybody should believe that this is actual troops marching. It’s quite weird in our YouTube video age, when it’s easy to make it with clips or let’s say black clouds. Of course, I want to be able not to use 3D at some point, to set this credibility criterion even lower. And at some point, new things emerge, the ones that you wouldn’t be able to create if you had a budget and a contractor who would sit behind the computer being a bigger expert than you are. So, it’s crucial to do this by yourself. It’s crucial for video and media art, this could be the reason why I don’t want to be a film director yet.
VN: Speaking of your love for gaming and game development, being inside the game, experiencing it rather than walking it through—how important is it for you?
MM: It’s quite logical. As I said, it’s interesting to excerpt the chunks, the concentration of life and kind of hold it in your hands, examine it. GTA 5 has a non-linear video editor, it allows you to combine bits of life filmed on different cameras into one. By clicking REC in GTA 5, before working in the video editor, you can record the life of the whole state of California at that moment. And when you start editing, you work with this life. This state’s life piece is served to you like a piece of cake. And then any cat running down the street could catch your eye and you’d be able to work with that cat. That is the point: you film not the thing you want, but the whole imagery procedure and later when you realise why did you film it: not because your character bumped oddly into the corner, but rather because this cat hit you. So, you could focus your efforts on it. This game allows you to save moments in their rich diversity rather than in its flatness, it’s kind of pseudoscientific discipline. The pseudoscience of digital physics. Actually, there is such notion, it’s not pseudoscience, it has substantial grounds and advocates, including physicians.
Video by Mikhail MaksimovCamera: Mikhail Maksimov, Ivan BranovetsSound Design: Eugene Voronovsky, Mikhail MaksimovVfx/Animation/Editing: Mikhail Maksimov